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Motorola Xoom 2 review

Motorola's second effort at building a Honeycomb tablet comes equipped with a 1.2GHz processor, an IPS LCD, and a dramatically thinner form factor

It was 10 months ago, during the Super Bowl, that Motorola announced the original Xoom to the world. In a 60-second ad that spared no expense, Google and Motorola united to show us their bold new vision for tablets; Honeycomb was going to revolutionize Android and our lives with it, while the Xoom was to be the flagship cresting that wave of change. You know your history, so you're no doubt aware that those grand plans didn't come to fruition.

Motorola's approach with the Xoom 2 is, perhaps as a consequence of its experience with the Xoom, much more cautious, almost taciturn. The upgraded tablet has been put up for sale in the UK with nary a billboard or a late-night commercial to champion it, while its US promotion seems to have been handed off to Verizon, who's been allowed to deface it with the tacky moniker of Droid Xyboard. It wouldn't be unreasonable, therefore, to describe the Xoom 2 as the product of a company in a holding pattern. Moto clearly doesn't feel comfortable being an also-ran in the Android race, particularly not once Google becomes its parent company, but the time has apparently not been deemed correct to introduce the true successor to the extremely ambitious Xoom.

That leaves us with the Xoom 2, a device that slims down, speeds up, and polishes the original Xoom experience, but leaves the attempted revolutions to others. Much-needed upgrades have been made to the camera and display, a new aluminum back makes the Xoom 2 10 percent lighter, and a RAZR-like Splash-guard coating adds some extra resilience against the elements. MotoCast and a sprinkling of other apps come preloaded in an effort to make up for Honeycomb's deficiencies. So, the question that now needs to be answered is whether this incremental upgrade is worth a trip to the nearest Android-friendly tablet store or if we should all just wait for the next Superbowl half-time show.

Video review

Video review


Hardware

Hardware

The corners have been cut, but that's by design

Motorola's biggest alterations between the two Xoom generations can be found in the industrial design. The new slate is significantly thinner — a whole 33 percent, exactly the amount by which the iPad slimmed down between iterations — and equals or betters most of the tablet competition with its aggressively slim and light construction. In fact, the Xoom 2's 8.8mm (0.35 inches) thickness and 600g (1.32 pounds) weight are both direct matches for the measurements of the iPad 2 Wi-Fi model, a congruence in specs which I doubt was accidental. Unlike the Apple tablet, however, the Xoom 2 has a 16:10 display ratio, meaning it is longer and narrower, and the way it feels in use is markedly different.

The squarer iPad (or the HP TouchPad, which has the same 9.7-inch screen size, 1024 x 768 resolution, and 4:3 display ratio) is, in my opinion, a more natural form factor for tablets in the 10-inch size range than the Xoom 2's 1280 x 800 setup. Although their critical dimensions are the same, I find the iPad 2 much easier to handle and type on than the elongated Xoom 2. The latter presents a sort of one-size-fits-none proposition, where its keyboard is too wide in landscape mode to thumb-type comfortably and too tall in portrait mode to make for agreeable text input that way. Additionally, in spite of shedding some of the Xoom's weight, this is still a tablet that's better held in two hands than one. The Xoom 2's ergonomics remind me most of the Eee Pad Transformer, which too had some pronounced extra bezel around the display, though in the Transformer's case the reason was that it had a keyboard dock to hook up to. The Xoom 2 doesn't really have a good excuse for expanding the bezel relative to the original Xoom, though Motorola offsets that a little by chopping off the corners of its new tablet. It doesn't improve handling of the tablet, as I actually prefer the more mundane curves of the Xoom, but the new look is distinctive and attractive.

Matches the iPad 2 in weight and thickness, but not ergonomics

The choice of materials on the Xoom 2 is almost a universal success. The aluminum back is sturdy, matte, and smooth, punctuated by a rounded M logo, a pair of stereo speakers, and a slightly protruding compartment for the camera and LED flash. As you move away from the center, the aluminum gives way to a hard rubber surface, which wraps around the sides and bottom, but not the top. Its purpose is to give a softer finish for the areas you'll be touching most and it succeeds in that role. The biggest letdown for me, however, is that Motorola has insisted on its odd habit of placing the power button on the back, this time making it even harder to locate and activate than on the original Xoom. It's now a small rubber button hidden away behind the right shoulder of the Xoom 2, slightly above a volume rocker, also made out of rubber. Locating those buttons by touch is relatively easy since they have little nubs on top (much in the way the F, J, and 5 keys do on a physical keyboard), however figuring out the difference between the power key and the volume up button is not. The confusion is not helped by the lack of tangible travel in those keys, making for a frustrating experience almost every time you try to unlock the tablet.

Dimensions (in.) Thickness Weight (lb.)
Motorola Xoom 2 10 x 6.9 0.35 1.32
Motorola Xoom 9.8 x 6.6 0.51 1.5
Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime 10.4 x 7.1 0.31 1.29
Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 10.1 x 6.9 0.34 1.2
Apple iPad 2 9.5 x 7.3 0.34 1.33

Besides screwing up its only physical inputs, Motorola has mostly done things right with the Xoom 2. A single sheet of Gorilla Glass covers the entire front, with a 1.3-megapixel camera, an ambient light sensor, and a disguised status LED light all framing the 10.1-inch IPS LCD beneath it. There's also a tiny notch at the bottom center for the microphone. Taken as a whole, the Xoom 2 is an extremely robust tablet. There's no creaking to be heard, and only a tiny bit of flex in the middle of the back, while fit and finish are done to a superlative standard. I didn't dare test Motorola's claims that the Xoom 2 would resist splashes of water, but it is coated (both on the outside and in) with the same Splash-guard stuff that you'll find on the Droid RAZR. That should provide some added peace of mind if you find yourself in particularly humid climes or caught out by a rainstorm, even if it shouldn't be relied on to salvage your tablet from a drop in the bathtub.

Xoom2-thin
Xoom2-power
Xoom2-profile
Display

Display

Glare can still be an issue, but a much lesser one than on the Xoom
Gmail-macro-xoom2-300

Think of the glossiest material you've seen in your life — it was the original Xoom's display, right? I can't be sure that the Xoom had the most reflective screen ever, but Motorola did itself no favors by combining a very glossy front with a dim and unimpressive LCD. Fortunately, the company has learned from its folly and has returned with an IPS LCD in the Xoom 2 that is light years ahead of its predecessor. Colors are richer and more accurate, viewing angles are drastically improved, and although glare remains a problem, it's a much smaller one now. The only issue I encountered was that, at a certain angle, the backlight would overwhelm the image in front of it, washing out your view. I wouldn't worry too much about that, however, since the particular angle you need is close to 70 degrees off center, meaning that most of the time you'll be enjoying a tablet with a legitimately up-to-date display.

It bears noting that the IPS screen inside the Xoom 2 is not quite on a par with the IPS display of the iPad (first or second generation) or the SuperIPS+ you'll find on the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime. It's good, just not that good. A more fitting comparison for the Xoom 2 would be Asus's older-generation Eee Pad Transformer, which is equipped with another of these slightly less than sublime IPS panels.

Having criticized the screen's aspect ratio for its impact on ergonomics earlier, I'd be remiss not to mention that 16:9 is the format in which most TV and video content is distributed nowadays, so the Xoom 2's 16:10 should make for a nearly black bar-free multimedia experience. If all you intend to do with your tablet is perch it up somewhere and use it to blast through the last couple of series of Breaking Bad and House, this is the form factor for you.

Touchscreen responsiveness on the Xoom 2 is without fault. Although the tablet's software has some issues of its own, taps, swipes, and keyboard input are all registered reliably and consistently. Motorola also throws in a great little innovation, which it has dubbed Intelligent Grip Suppression (IGP). This allows you to keep the hand with which you're holding the tablet in contact with the touchscreen without it interfering with your control of the slate. For most people, that will mean their left thumb can be moved in from the bezel and onto the display, for a more comfortable grip, where the tablet will be smart enough to ignore it in favor of input from the right hand. I really enjoyed this new feature during my review of the Xoom 2, though the software wasn't quite as intelligent as advertised and failed to recognize my gripping posture about as often as it succeeded. Another slight foible to the IGP implementation is that, even if you keep your gripping finger perfectly still, doing so on the Android home screen will just activate the long-press menu.

Cameras

Cameras

Despite keeping the same 5-megapixel resolution as on the Xoom, the Xoom 2's camera is a much-improved unit. In natural light, it can produce stunningly clear photos and Motorola's noise reduction is subtle enough not to blur any of the detail out. Color accuracy is sometimes lacking, but that's the only downer in what is the best tablet camera I've tested yet. Low-light situations do cause an increase in graininess and a loss of sharpness, but the Xoom 2 still performs well for its class.

Video maxes out at 720p resolution and 30fps, capturing footage that looks and sounds good. Motion causes it some issues, however, as moving subjects tend to develop an unsightly blur. That limits the circumstances in which the Xoom 2 can make itself useful as a camcorder, but it's arguable that the tablet's size already narrows down that set of situations dramatically. There's no good reason to use a 10-inch tablet to shoot video when a smartphone, typically equipped with better optics to boot, can do the job more quickly, easily, and discreetly. The same is true for photos, but I'm still happy to see Motorola take imaging seriously and equip the Xoom 2 with a camera worth using. If you're going to put a 5-megapixel autofocus camera on the spec sheet, you might as well make it a good one, and that's exactly what Moto has done with the Xoom 2.

The front-facing camera is now a 1.3-megapixel imager and the usual blurry and unimpressive results you expect from such tiny cameras are very much in attendance. Video chat is where they come into their own, however, and the Xoom 2 is quite competent at doing that. It's not yet been certified for Skype, which was evidenced by the fact I couldn't get my camera feed to display for the person I was in a video call with, but video chats in Gtalk were smooth and painless. This is another area where the strong 5-megapixel camera on the back can come in handy, as you're able to switch to it while in a video chat and, for example, give folks a tour of your new dorm room.

Tablet cameras are finally reaching respectability
Xoom2-camera-sample
Performance / battery life

Performance and battery life

Some powerful internals are stifled by the inefficiency of Honeycomb
Moto-logo
Xoom2-charging_300
Battery Life
Motorola Xoom 2 4:56
Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime 5:09
Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 6:37
Apple iPad 2 8:52

The perpetual fly in the Honeycomb ointment has always been a lack of responsiveness and the Xoom 2 sadly keeps that trend up. The Android UI is a little quicker than on the original Xoom, but I encountered massive slowdown and consistently stuttery animations in a number of core apps. Gmail was the worst offender, but the web browser and official Twitter client were culprits too. This, it has to be stressed, is purely down to software optimizations, or the lack thereof. The 1.2GHz dual-core inside the Xoom 2 is a potent system-on-chip and it makes me sad to see it embarrassed by an unacceptably laggy user experience. Android 4 should go a long way to releasing the full potential of the hardware, but until then, Android 3.2 is a major bottleneck on performance.

SunSpider Quadrant
Motorola Xoom 2 1889ms 2780
Motorola Xoom 2335ms 1024
Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime 1707ms 3132
Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 2374ms 2040
* Lower scores are better in SunSpider, higher scores are better in Quadrant.

Games, 1080p video playback, and other processor-intensive tasks were all handled well by the Xoom 2, underlining the fact that its performance issues are all to do with the implementation of the OS. Motorola has promised that an Android 4 upgrade for the Xoom 2 will be forthcoming, and until it does, I find myself reluctant to even use the slate because of its exhibition of jittery scrolling and frame-starved animations.

Audio output from the Xoom 2 is decent thanks to a pair of stereo speakers, though their placement on the back of the device remains questionable. They send sound away from the listener, which inevitably tends to make things feel more distant than they perhaps need to be. Still, the Xoom 2 manages to retain audio clarity to a reasonably high volume (though certainly not to its max setting) and performs about as well as can be expected from such a thin tablet.

The Carphone Warehouse, one of the Xoom 2's few retailers, lists it with a 7,000mAh battery and my experience of its endurance and the amount of time it took to charge would seem to confirm it. The original Xoom had two 3,250mAh cells for a total of 6,500mAh, and came with a 10-hour claimed battery life, which is also what Motorola is promising with the Xoom 2. Presumably, the mild capacity upgrade is being offset by the faster SoC. I can definitely envision scenarios where you'd reach the full 10 hours of real world use, however our battery drain test wasn't in a very forgiving mood with the Xoom 2, which only achieved 4 hours and 56 minutes.

I suspect that the tablet wasn't able to downclock dynamically during the test and running at the full 1.2GHz is to blame for the comparatively poor battery performance. In more conventional use, the Xoom 2 will step its processor down to as low as 300MHz in order to keep power consumption in check during less intensive tasks. The 10-inch screen and its backlight will still consume the lion's share of power, but it also merits mentioning that the Xoom 2 idles like a champ and can go a mighty long time between recharges when used sporadically.

Additionally, the Xoom 2 is capable of charging over USB when connected to a computer. The original Xoom would only accept power from a wall outlet, whereas the new tablet is less discriminating. Given the battery's size, it still makes most sense to charge it with the provided charger, but for those times when you haven't got it nearby or you just need a burst of quick energy, this is a nice bit of added flexibility.

Software

Software

Honeycomb-settings

Two problems conspire to deliver an unsatisfactory user experience on the Xoom 2. On the one hand, Honeycomb, whether in version 3.0 on the Xoom or the current v3.2, is simply not good enough to be shipping on devices; and on the other, Motorola's implementation is so poor that it feels even more sluggish and unfriendly. The first point is a longstanding combination of poor responsiveness, a shortage of tablet optimizations, and a few weird shortcomings like the inability to kill apps from the multitasking view. Have you ever tried to copy and paste a portion of text on a Honeycomb tablet? That's as weird and unintuitive an experience as you're likely to find. Android 4, Ice Cream Sandwich, is on our doorstep and about to rectify a great deal of these flaws, but its promise won't do much to speed up the Xoom 2 today.

Motorola compounds those innate issues of the platform with some sloppy work under the hood, which has made the Gmail application behave as if it is moving mountains when all I'm asking of it is to enter and exit a few email conversations. When you consider that this is Google's native email application, running on its "tablet-optimized" OS, and using the hardware of Motorola, a company that will soon be owned by Google, you have to wonder why Andy Rubin or anyone else at Mountain View didn't veto the release of this tablet. It's that bad.

Aside from harping about performance, I have to reiterate the consistent complaint about the lack of tablet-friendly apps in the Android Market. They're still few and far between, even the big Twitter web and app overhaul didn't include any optimizations for larger form factors, and it does seem like everyone's waiting for ICS to arrive before investing too heavily in redeveloping software. That's fair enough, and there are some alternatives like Plume that already work well on the WXGA resolution. Add in the fact that the Galaxy Nexus, HTC Rezound, and LG Optimus LTE / Nitro HD all have 720p displays, and you may expect 2012 to finally be the year of high-res Android apps. It's just that today we don't have that many of them. That leaves the Xoom 2 stuck in this funny place where I can definitely see its potential as an ICS-equipped tablet with plenty of entertainment and utility options, but I can't in good conscience advise anyone to pick it up in its current state.

Motocast2


Motorola does add a couple of nice features to the Xoom 2, the best of which is MotoCast. It's the same system as you may have seen on the Droid RAZR, and its operation is wonderfully easy and intuitive. The purpose of MotoCast is to hook your tablet up to your PC (Windows or Mac) at home and to allow streaming and sideloading of files over the air. It's a more useful feature on 3G-connected devices (or 4G, in the case of the Droid Xyboard), but even over Wi-Fi, I really enjoyed having access to my media library and documents while away from home. The software is quick and stable and lives up to its promise of a seamless connection. To install it, you just connect the Xoom 2 up to your computer via USB and the installer runs automatically. Many will have been disappointed by Motorola's retrograde step of limiting the Xoom 2 models to just 16GB of (non-expandable) storage, but I'm in agreement with the company's premise that having MotoCast offsets most of the downside of having limited storage.

Another neat little touch is the hidden status LED light, which blinks in different colors according to the app calling it into action. It's positioned to the right of the front-facing camera and lights up green for unread Gmail messages, blue for Plume notifications, or red when the Xoom 2 is in need of a charge.

Android 4 can't come soon enough for the Xoom 2
Xoom2-clock-weather-widget

One of the odder moments in that Super Bowl Xoom advert was the scene where the iconoclast with the Xoom tablet opted to walk up the stairs while all the conformists rode the escalator alongside him. Well, that's the experience of using a Honeycomb tablet in a nutshell. You're choosing effort over ease, grind over grace.

Motorola doesn't help matters by shipping software with even worse performance than we're used to from Honeycomb, and its few nice additions are buried under a mountain of lag. The Xoom 2 is built very well, fitting within a set of dimensions that would have been market-altering at this time last year and remain right on par with the leaders today. Its new IPS display is a triumph and the improved 5-megapixel camera brings tablet photography a great deal closer in quality to its smartphone brethren. The trouble is that all those good things are for naught if the software isn't good enough and, regrettably, that's exactly where the Xoom 2 finds itself. Android 4.0 may rejuvenate this tablet in a spectacular fashion, but until it does, the Xoom 2 is not an advisable purchase. If you must have a 10-inch Android tablet today, the Eee Pad Transformer Prime would be our top choice, followed closely by the Galaxy Tab 10.1.

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